From launching The Strokes to Lisa O’Neill – tales from legendary music talent spotter Geoff Travis

A dive bar in New Brunswick, New Jersey is not the first place one thinks about whenever the idea of the future of rock ‘n’ roll comes up, but it was there, in 2000, that Geoff Travis first set eyes on a band that would help define the sound of the new century. The group was The Strokes and, as Travis remembers it, there were just four people there – and all of them were at the bar ignoring the music. But that didn’t matter to the founder of the revered Rough Trade label. He knew straight away that he was witnessing something special.

“I turned to Jeanette [Lee, his partner at Rough Trade] and we just looked at each other. We couldn’t believe it [how good the band was]. It was really thrilling to see.”

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The pair had no hesitation: The Strokes signed to Rough Trade and their debut album was released to rhapsodic reviews the following year. In the Guardian’s list of the top 100 albums of the century, published this month, Is This It appears at number two, bested only by Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black.

“There is something really exciting about the early days of a band where there’s this huge anticipation around,” he says. “I clearly remember the excitement of waiting for them to come onstage at the Camden Barfly [London] and Julian [Casablancas, frontman] having lost his courage and having to be walked around for about an hour and to get him on stage. And the place was jamming and heaving and just brimming with excitement. And of course, the old showbiz trick of letting them wait worked a treat!”

Travis has enjoyed many such moments in a career that dates back to the late 1970s. And he witnessed it last year when he first saw Cavan singer Lisa O’Neill in concert. She would be the first signing he made on River Lea, the folk label he formed with Lee and music journalist Tim Chipping.

“Lankum is the key to so much of what we’re doing,” he says of the acclaimed Dublin folk quartet, who release a new album next month. “We saw Lisa supporting them at a gig in Belfast and it was the first time Jeanette and I saw her. There were rowdy lads – they may have been from Cavan, too – and they were making fun of her accent, which bothered us, but she just got on with it and and she was great. We’re old-timers and it takes something special to stop us in our tracks.”

What does it take to impress this famed A&R man. “Be as good as Lankum or Girl Band,” he quips. “And don’t be something that’s a more populist copy of that which already exists. It’s a sad trajectory in popular culture – very often the innovators and originators don’t get the commercial success that the people who kind of pick up what they’re doing and dilute it slightly for the marketplace get. Unfortunately, we [the masses] tend not to go for those. In Rough Trade, we signed the Virgin Prunes and not U2 and they were kind of brother bands living a few streets from each other – and that sort of shows the mistakes we’ve made in our trajectory right there.”

The Virgin Prunes were among many Irish bands who have been on Rough Trade over the years. The label’s first singing from this island was Stiff Little Fingers. “‘Alternative Ulster’ was our fourth single,” he says. “I mixed it in the studio.”

David Kitt also found a home on Rough Trade. “I love David,” he says. “The record he put out last year [Yous] is beautiful.

“There’s something about Ireland and its culture that is just incredible. I don’t know when it started – it might have been in the 20s and 30s, with Beckett and Joyce or it might have been with Yeats and Lady Gregory, or with Van Morrison. And this is a renaissance now, especially in literature. You’ve got Sinéad Gleeson and Emilie Pine and Anna Burns and Colm Tóibín and Brian Moore, Roddy Doyle and Kevin Barry… just amazing writers and artists at this point in history. It’s certainly being noticed over here.”

Two out of the three acts signed to River Lea are Irish. Besides Lisa O’Neill, Carlow brothers Brían and Diarmuid Mac Gloinn, who record as Ye Vagabonds, are also on the roster, as is the Scottish piper, Brìghde Chaimbeul, whose debut album, The Reeling, is unlike anything you’ll hear this year. All three artists will play a special show at Dublin’s National Concert Hall (NCH) next month.

“It’s a very nice invitation by Gary Sheehan [head of programme planning] and the people at the Concert Hall to showcase the label,” he says. “There’s been a resurgence of young people making great folk-based music, it’s really fertile and yet it’s not noticed by the mainstream very often. It’s such a beautiful hall and a prestigious place to play. It maybe puts a bit of an underline under these artists and gets people to take them more seriously.”

He wishes more people knew about Ye Vagabonds, whose album, The Hare’s Lament, is among the best home-grown releases of the year. “It’s so difficult to put your finger on why they made such an impression on me. They’re true, and soulful and real – their music moves you. It’s the way they sing. And they’ve that thing that brothers have when they sing together, and the instrumentation is just wonderful. And there’s a tinge of The Incredible String Band around them, too.”

He says he, Lee and Chipping founded River Lea to keep on the tradition of Britain’s oldest independent label, Topic Records, and release the most striking new folk music being made today. There are some echoes of the fledgling years of Rough Trade. “We had no idea what we were doing in the early days of Rough Trade,” he says, with a laugh. “We had no historical context or perspective, like we do now. Back then, it was just a mad vortex of doing stuff.

“Today, we’re very lucky in that we’re under the protection of Martin Mills and Beggars Banquet [entertainment group] and although we have to pay our way, we’re certainly in a system that allows us to do whatever we like. And there is a thrill in being able to support artists that may not otherwise have any support from the industry.”

Travis formed Rough Trade in 1978, years after he opened a London record store of the same name. It enjoyed extraordinary success in the 1980s, thanks to bands like The Smiths and The Fall, but it got into cash-flow difficulties in the early 1990s and had to be wound up.

It was rescued at the end of the decade, and Travis enjoyed one of the greatest comebacks in indie label history. First he signed The Strokes. Then came The Libertines, Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens.

“When you get old,” he says, “it’s very enriching to involve yourself with young people who are intelligent and creative. And that excitement I feel about great new music, never fades. Having bands like Black Midi and Girl Band to work with is really great. And even though they may not be as commercially popular The Strokes or The Libertines or The Smiths, they are just as magical in their own way.”

Travis says he can measure his life in great moments, whether it was seeing Prince perform a small show for his third album, Dirty Mind, in a tiny San Francisco club in 1980, or obsessing over the latest Lana Del Rey album (Norman Fucking Rockwell). “I’ve been listening to it non-stop.”

Of all the bands that Travis has signed over the past four decades, one name stands tallest: The Smiths. “It was just incredible to see how good they were. That’s the measure we have of any new band – it’s a very high water mark!

“The Smiths, in a way, modelled themselves on The Beatles in a sense that they had read about the work ethic of John and Paul and the fact that they were told by Brian [Epstein, manager], ‘We need a new single, guys’ and they’d get together over a weekend and write it.

“And that was Johnny [Marr] and Morrissey’s attitude towards their job, in quotation marks. They’d have a Peel Session [for BBC radio] and Johnny would send a cassette of music to Morrissey and Morrissey would write four songs and they’d rehearse and then they’d come down and do a session and it would be brilliant.”

Geoff Travis curates Tradition Now at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on October 5. The night will feature performances from his River Lea signings, Lisa O’Neill, Ye Vagabonds and Brìghde Chaimbeul. Travis and Jeannette Lee will also be taking part at the Ireland Music Week Conference in Dublin (Oct 2-5)

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